GETAWAY: The Wild Coast of Africa

I was ready to admit that I may have made a terrible mistake. I had lured my friends into an uncomfortable, maybe dangerous, adventure on a whim.
Things couldn't get much worse. We were somewhere in the Transkei province of South Africa. Night had fallen precipitously, rain and fog were all around us, and the dirt road we were following was a rutted sloppy mess, narrowing by the mile. Visibility was near zero.
As we drove slowly around curves and over hills, things emerged from the fog and just as suddenly disappeared. Two cows and a goat, perilously close to the side of the road. Three women, with high headdresses, wrapped in yellow, blue and red robes. One large unhappy bull. A man in a full length white coat with a green and yellow knitted dreadlock cap. A group of men sitting on crates under a light in a lean-to. Their eyes followed us as we passed on into the fog and the total blackness of a countryside that had almost no electricity.
What had I done?
It had seemed like such an appealing idea months before, back in Canada, planning the trip. Six of us had put together our ideal three week trip to South Africa, mapping out the places we wanted to see. I had read about the Wild Coast, an area of the Eastern Cape bordering the Indian Ocean in Xhosa country, the birthplace of Nelson Mandela. Far removed from the tourist spots, it was famous for its untouched shoreline and the walking paths that looped along the coast, from one small inn to the next.
Despite the long drive to get there, I really wanted to do this hike, and swept the others along with my enthusiasm. Perhaps I just wore them down, or maybe they thought that because I was a travel writer, I knew what I was doing.
So here we were, and it wasn't looking good. In the middle of nowhere, bad roads and utter blackness except for the triangle of our headlights.
And then we drove into the warm circle of light at the Kobb Inn, with the throb of breakers in the background, where gin and tonics and roast lamb were waiting.
We slept in a modern version of a rondavel, the thatch roofed round cottage found everywhere in rural South Africa, and the next morning set off on the walk I had dreamed about.
You know those days in your life that are golden, to which, when times get tough, you can mentally escape?
This was one of those days. The beaches were pristine, untouched it seemed by anyone but the occasional villager, and the cows. It was strange to see the cattle cooling their legs in the ocean, and sunbathing on the wet sand. When we approached an estuary that at high tide was too deep to walk across, a little boat manned by a friendly local would magically appear, and for a few pennies would ferry us to the other side. There were no resorts, no strip malls, no stores, no advertising signs.
Later that evening back at the Kobb Inn, we feasted on whole local fish that had been roasted on the barbeque and swayed to the music while ladies from a nearby village performed their traditional dances for us.
The Kobb Inn is the starting point for the Wild Coast Meander, a hotel-to-hotel hiking trail covering 56 km of the southern region of the Wild Coast. The terrain is awesome in its isolation and natural splendour. Accommodation is provided nightly in the coastal resorts, and guides from local Xhosa communities accompany hikers every day, sharing their local knowledge and customs.
At Trennery's, further down the coast and near the mouth of the Kei River, we met up with a group on horseback. Julie-Ann from Wild Coast Horse Safaris, who leads groups on what has been called the “best horseback beach riding experience in the world,” told me that the riding tours she leads along the beaches were aggressive but carefully guided, and very popular with European and South African tourists.
So despite its inauspicious beginning, the Wild Coast was everything I had hoped Africa would be. But the Wild Coast is just one very small part of the pleasures of this large country of South Africa.
For cosmopolitan sophistication, Cape Town is the city to visit, and never more so than now when everything has been put in spit and polish condition for the recent FIFA World Cup. The strong Canadian dollar also makes South Africa in general affordable.
Cape Town is one of the prettiest capital cities in the world, cradled between the seacoast and Table Mountain. Watching the clouds lie over Table Mountain like a starched tablecloth when the “good cape doctor” blows is a free gift from Mother Nature. A trip up to the top of Table Mountain will give you spectacular views of the city and the coast, and to get back down, you can take a tram, hike down one of many trails or try abseiling.
The new Victoria and Alfred complex in the middle of the city's waterfront district is a shopping destination, but also a place for excellent dining with a sea view. There's an IMAX theatre, an aquarium, open air theatre, and on any day you visit, there are musicians performing under the shade trees.
Kirstsenbosch National Botanical Gardens deserve a special visit, where you will see a spectacular collection of proteas, South Africa's state flower, as well as the famous fynbos (fine bush) unique to the Cape. Take a boat trip out to Robben Island to visit the historically preserved jail that housed Nelson Mandela and many other political prisoners for so many years. If you are in search of evening entertainment, visit Long Street, to find pubs, nightclubs and local restaurants serving South African dishes, like boboti (a Cape Malay minced lamb dish), biltong (dried sausage) and melktart (milk tart). Look for the side street called Longmarket Street for local shopping. There's a colourful market held here daily in the famous Greenmarket Square, selling African curios, paintings, clothes and leather goods at good prices.
Day trips from Cape Town are numerous. Forty minutes drive from the city along the N2 takes you to Vergelegen, an authentically restored Cape estate that dates back to the early 1700s when the area was governed by the Dutch East India Company. The lovely, mustard-coloured Cape style buildings are furnished with period furniture. There's an excellent restaurant, extensive gardens and the estate produces award-winning wines.  Especially notable are the 300-year-old Chinese Camphor trees, which were declared a National Monument in 1942.
Head south from Cape Town and you encounter Cape Peninsula National Park and the famous Cape of Good Hope, with its dramatic cliffs, bays and beaches where the Atlantic and Indian Oceans meet. Baboons, monkeys and ostriches are a regular sight on the roadside. Drive the M4 along the coast to view the cliffs and bays, and stop for lunch at Seaforth, near Simon's Town to visit the Penguin Colony at Boulder's Beach. There are opportunities for swimming, surfing, snorkelling and hiking all through this area.
Leave the area of Cape Town and journey through the Western Cape, the jewel of South Africa, encompassing the Garden Route, the Wine Route and the incomparable beaches of Plettenberg Bay.
The Garden Route begins in the pretty town of George, includes Wilderness, the home of President Botha until his death, and the artsy tourist town of Knysna, then winds along the white sand beaches and forested mountains of the coast to Plettenberg Bay, or Plett, as the locals call it.
On the Wine Route you can drive through the rugged Simonsberg and Drakenstein mountain ranges of Stellenbosch and Franschoek through the picturesque Banhoek Valley, where some of South Africa's most famous wineries grow grapes on the slopes and in the valleys. Long established wineries, like Boschendal with its Cape Dutch manor house dating back to 1812, offer excellent restaurants, wine tastings and unique gift shops. Visit the more modern style Graham Beck Winery to try out its excellent champagne. Franschoek (French Corner) is considered the culinary capital of South Africa and is filled with top rated restaurants.
The best places to stay along either of these routes are in the small manor houses or inns.  In Wilderness, the Wilderness Manor is an elegant and personal small hotel, while just outside Stellenbosch, Clouds is another small but upscale guesthouse. In Plett, Cottage Pie is a five star guesthouse built around a central courtyard and pool, a short walk from the white sand beaches of the bay. Emily Moon, also in Plett Bay, is an award-winning restaurant and Inn with superb views over the ocean flats. Try the Karoo lamb on the menu here ““ the chef claims that it is the best lamb in the world because the sheep feast on fynbos, which perfumes the meat.
No visit to South Africa would be complete without a safari and there are several options to choose from. The best known safari area is Kruger National Park, the country's largest game reserve, but there are many other excellent safari options, from the Etali Safari Lodge in Madikwe near the border of Botswana, to the luxury of the Samara Game Reserve in the Eastern Cape. A pre-dawn excursion into the wild to encounter kudu, elephants, zebras, giraffes, cheetahs, or whatever wildlife is up and about at that hour, is an experience of a lifetime.
This is a country of great beauty and many charms, from the wild to the urbane; so many that it might just require more than one visit. And remember: sometimes bad roads lead to good things. I think that's an old African proverb.
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